At first, I didn’t understand what she was doing. A few chapters into J.K. Rowling’s first post-Potter book, and I was overwhelmed with characters. There’s the city councilman, the delicatessen owner, the cheeky teenager, the gossipy nurse, the lingerie entrepreneur. Not to mention the new girl in town, the lawyer afraid of commitment, the existentialist-student, and the guidance counselor who cares too much. Frankly, I felt a bit like I’d walked into a crowded cocktail party and was introduced to everyone, all at once, with a little too much champagne — it wasn’t an altogether unpleasant experience, but there was no way I’d remember everyone.
Well, I was supposed to feel that way. It’s like Rowling takes hold of the web of small-town connections that seem to connect everyone to everyone else and wraps her reader up in it immediately. You start to pick up on associations you think you forgot (“Oh, I think that’s So-and-So’s sister. And didn’t she go to school with What’s-His-Name?”), and, instead of reading about being the new kid on the block, you actually feel like one. Anyone who read even halfway through the Harry Potter series knows Rowling’s adept at creating thick histories for even insignificant characters; the richness and complexity of the Potter universe is one of the reasons its fans are so loyal (and obsessive). Here, Rowling’s mastery over back story and character development is in full effect, and, instead of weaving it through seven books, she whips it out in seven chapters. Overwhelming? Yes. And also pretty damn impressive.
But Rowling’s not just showing off, and this kind of writing does more than make the reader feel like part of the small town the story revolves around. I think her point here is that the real world is complicated, and no human being is the center of it. In fact, none of us is more important, more complex, or more inherently deserving of a spotlight or a storyline, than anyone else.
That’s not how most books (or movies, or songs, or other stories) work. That’s not how Harry Potter worked — it was all about Harry, all the time (Don’t believe me? Just ask Ron). Hero-centric storytelling can certainly be instructive, but it also reinforces a secret belief that each one of us is the center of the universe: that other people are merely supporting actors in a show that’s about us. But that’s not reality, and it’s not just an oversimplification — it’s dangerous. Throughout the novel, Rowling has several characters expressing frustration with this reality or coming to terms with it for the first time. Listen to Pagford’s guidance counselor when she thinks about her son (and students):
“She wanted to scream, ‘You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.’”
This parent/teenage-child dynamic isn’t unusual for the book, by the way. Nearly half of the characters in the book are teens, and their stories are just as important as the adults’. If you thought Harry Potter showed how well Rowling understands teenagers (and it did), you’ll be blown away by Casual Vacancy (and probably a little frightened of what your kids are feeling if you’re a parent).
The novel shows how little parents and teenagers understand each other, sure. But, more than that, it’s about how little any of us understands anyone else — at least when we don’t try to: when we’re so focused on our own narratives that we see other people as characters in our own stories instead of being fully dimensional people in their own right. Rowling mentions Facebook a lot, and that’s no accident. Where else are we constantly confronted with bits of other people’s stories, and where else are we more likely to write them off as silly, stupid, and insignificant compared with our own?
Other people are obviously real to Rowling. The empathy she shows for each one of her characters is staggering, and her insight into the circumstances of their lives reflects the darkness as well as the light. A lot of people have written about the “adult” aspects of Casual Vacancy’s plot. I think calling these out specifically is doing the book a disservice, because it makes them sound contrived when they’re really not.
Besides, I don’t know why people are so surprised. Harry Potter contains teenage lust and a little profanity, discusses racism and slavery through its wizarding-world equivalents, and even hints at (probably) rape and (definitely) homosexuality. In the Potter books, written for children, lots of those themes are appropriately below the surface, or veiled in story. But it’s not as if Rowling didn’t see the darkness in the world she created — even as she wrote about elves and goblins and wizards. After all, this is the lady who gave the world Voldemort; she’s not unaccustomed to nastiness.
I’ve been deliberately vague about Casual Vacancy’s plot, partly because I don’t think that’s what a review is for (it’s not a book report, after all), but mostly because I can’t easily boil it down without doing it an injustice. I will say it’s certainly not Fantasy, and there are no wands or spells or potions masters in its pages. But, you know what? I didn’t miss them, not really. It’s not Harry Potter, but Rowling is still an exceptional writer, a superb storyteller, and a stunningly sharp observer of human nature — and that’s a very real (and increasingly rare) kind of magic.